Wal-Mart clothes begin to look more trendy, wearable

Consuming Interests


There's something wacky going on over at your local Wal-Mart.

Sometime while we weren't looking, the big-box retailer began hipping up the joint with cute pet accessories, surprisingly fashionable clothing and health-conscious organic food selections. Imagine our surprise when we walked into the store in Hunt Valley recently and found several well-dressed women browsing its clothing aisles.

What happened to the old Always Low Prices juggernaut we once knew? Many thrifty consumers have come to rely on Wal-Mart for its deals, stocking up on toilet paper and paper towels, but rarely for a smart outfit to wear out on the town or chic home furnishings.

As it turns out, Wal-Mart has slowly been targeting a whole, new class of customers who not only have more money to spend, but also a preference for products that offer better quality and style. With its sales slowing and stock price faltering recently, that's a smart move for Wal-Mart, considering a recent WSL Strategic Retail survey that showed 81 percent of high-income consumers shop there occasionally and almost half visit the store at least once a month.

Those numbers are up 13 percent compared to last year, according to WSL's Pulse survey.

"I think it's a convergence of more upper-income shoppers being in Wal-Mart nowadays because there are so many more Wal-Marts located in their neighborhoods now, and because we've got an economy that's got just about everybody more cautious about how they spend their money," says Candace Corlett, a principal with WSL, a consulting firm in New York. "How smart for them to encourage these shoppers to put more items into the basket.

"We know they're going to head down to the commodities aisle to stock up on their peanut butter, spaghetti sauce and dog food, but why not get them down the accessory aisle with items that tempt them -- such as a cute T-shirt or trendy, colorful socks?"

Taking a cue from its competitor Target, which already offers designer products from Isaac Mizrahi and Michael Graves, Wal-Mart first attracted interest in its strategic shift back in September when readers of fashion arbiter Vogue magazine found eight pages of ads showcasing women wearing different styles available from the discount chain.

Then in November, Wal-Mart began wooing affluent shoppers online with more luxury products such as 60-inch plasma TVs, 1-carat diamond platinum rings and cashmere scarves. Wal-Mart even opened up a luxury store in Plano, Texas, which includes a sushi bar, espresso bar with free wireless Internet service, fine jewelry and wine that costs as much as $500 a bottle.

On television, the king of markdowns has stepped away from commercials showing frumpy moms crowing about super savings and has begun to depict younger women visiting the store for something simple, like eye drops or chips, and finding instead a trendy little outfit.

In the store, Wal-Mart is luring shoppers with its new Metro 7 line for women, the new Exsto urban sportswear for 18-to-35-year-old men, a bigger selection of cat and dog toys and clothing for the pet owners' market, and healthier food products such as Kashi cereals and Parent's Choice organic infant formula.

The challenge, Corlett says, is for Wal-Mart to appeal to high-income shoppers while not alienating its low-income shoppers.

Longtime shopper Diana Buicoffe thinks Wal-Mart's on the right path so far. She still thinks that Target has edgier products, but says she likes Wal-Mart's lower prices.

Buicoffe checked out a white pleated skirt from the Hunt Valley Wal-Mart's George line for women, only to find none in her size. The 34-year-old Forest Hill nurse says she often heads to the discounter to find a cute tank top for a night out instead of shelling out loads of cash for something trendy she might wear only once.

And, in a show of enthusiasm for the retailer, Buicoffe says she once looked hopelessly everywhere for a nice dress to attend a funeral, only to find a perfect black tank dress from the George line.

"Now I always try to look in Wal-Mart first before I spend a lot of money on clothes," Buicoffe says. "I think the fashion has gotten better. You used to never be able to find clothes in there you'd want to wear."


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